Skip to Main Content

Officials Weigh National Security with Public’s Right to Know in Terrorism Cases

MATTHEW HEALEY FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE  Alexander Ciccolo was arrested this month in an alleged plot to carry out a terrorist attack. Law enforcement agencies did not immediately reveal the arrest in Adams.
Alexander Ciccolo was arrested this month in an alleged plot to carry out a terrorist attack. Law enforcement agencies did not immediately reveal the arrest in Adams.

Boston Globe
By Milton J. Valencia and Astead Herdon

ADAMS — A swarm of law enforcement officers, some in hazmat suits, had converged on the rundown apartment on Murray Street on the Fourth of July, and neighbors in this small town amid the mountains of Western Massachusetts had no idea why.

“We were thinking the worst,” said David Rowe, who lives on nearby Summer Drive.

But he would not know why an FBI-led team was at the home of Alexander Ciccolo, not for another nine days. It would take more than a week for law enforcement officials to publicly announce that they had arrested the 23-year-old Ciccolo — who was carrying a bag with four guns — for an alleged plot to carry out a terrorist attack.

Authorities said they kept the arrest secret for national security reasons, but legal and national security analysts say that the time it took for law enforcement officials and the courts to publicize Ciccolo’s case is extraordinary, for any crime.

With concerns of domestic terrorist plots on the rise, the analysts say that the case shows the difficult balance that the courts and law enforcement officials have to strike in weighing national security threats against a public’s right to know.

“There was so many rumors,” said Lila Zustra, who lives near Ciccolo on Crotteau Street. “A lot of people were very upset. . . . It makes me scared because you don’t expect it.”

A spokeswoman for the US Attorney’s office in Boston, Christina Diorio-Sterling, said that law enforcement officials chose not to immediately release the details of Ciccolo’s arrest because they “wanted to avoid jeopardizing the investigation by unnecessarily publicizing it.”

A federal prosecutor requested July 6 that the court file be unsealed, which would have meant that Ciccolo’s arrest would be listed on a public document. But US Magistrate Judge Katherine Robertson did not unseal the case until a week later, after a second request was made.

Juliette Kayyem, a former Homeland Security official in the Obama administration, said that arrests like Ciccolo’s are bound to increase as federal law enforcement officials intensify investigations into supporters of the Islamic State terrorist group who pose a threat, and she supports the administration’s decision to charge such offenders in the criminal court system, rather than in a military court.

But she said that the courts will have to balance national security concerns against public records and access laws, and against evidentiary rules that govern the judicial system.

“We have rules for this, for keeping evidence withdrawn, saving names, and we should use those rules for severe circumstances,” said Kayyem, a former Globe columnist. “There are rules about imminent danger and I think we have to depend on the courts to ensure they are truly a third and protective branch of the federal government.”

In addition to the lag in revealing Ciccolo’s arrest, federal law enforcement officials also altered a video that was played at Ciccolo’s detention hearing, by adding a black circle over his face, when releasing the video to the public.

The video, of Ciccolo’s post-arrest interview with an FBI agent in which he discusses his support for the Islamic State, was used by prosecutors to argue that he is a threat and should be held without bail. An unaltered version was played in court.

Sterling said that prosecutors sought to have the manipulated version of the video substituted as the official court record based on the FBI’s concern that it could become a propaganda and recruitment tool for terrorists if it became public.

Ciccolo’s arrest came one month after a separate FBI investigation of Islamic State supporters in Boston resulted in a suspect being fatally shot. Police say Usaamah Rahim, 26, of Roslindale plotted to kill law enforcement officers in an Islamic State-inspired attack, and allegedly lunged at investigators with a military-style knife as they tried to arrest him.

Two of Rahim’s associates are facing federal terrorism-related charges in that case.

There has been no suggestion that Ciccolo was connected to Rahim or any other plot. Ciccolo’s father, Boston police Captain Robert Ciccolo Jr., brought his son’s alleged extremism to the attention of the FBI, and also told agents that his son had a long history of mental illness.

James Forest, director of security studies at the University of Massachusetts Lowell’s Center for Terrorism and Security Studies, said authorities probably wanted to explore whether Ciccolo had any ties to other plots before making his case public.

“It is not merely a tradeoff between an open court system and national security concerns,” he said. “Agencies have to evaluate the potential value and impact of all kinds of intelligence.”

But these situations aren’t new, according to Karen J. Greenberg, director of the Center on National Security at Fordham University School of Law.

“These questions, they were always embedded in alleged terrorism cases, and they’re taking on a new, heightened scrutiny,” Greenberg said.